August 1, 2008

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time / Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThe Book of Isaiah’s third section provides this weekend’s first reading.

Reading the ancient Hebrew prophets quickly leads to three observations.

Each of the prophets wrote when times were quite troubling.

Second, the prophets, regardless of their own individual identities or circumstances, saw at the root of the troubles the people’s failure to acknowledge the supremacy of God and to follow the law of God.

Finally, affronting God has dire results that cannot quickly and easily be undone.

This theme prevails in the Scriptures from Genesis through the entire Old Testament and New Testament until the stormy times foreseen by the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible.

It is the Christian answer to the question of what evil endures in the world, and why the dreadful effects of sin beset us.

It is the situation to which Third Isaiah responded. Times were bad, to say the least. Freed from exile in Babylon, the survivors of the experience returned to the Holy Land, and found destitution and despair there. Imagining not only their disappointment, but also their cynicism and anger, about their situation is not difficult.

The composers of Third Isaiah had to summon the people back to trust in God, insisting that sin had created the condition. It would take time to repair, and repair was possible only in absolute faithfulness to God.

St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is the source of the second reading.

As with Third Isaiah, this writing from the New Testament came into being when followers of God were under great stress. The culture looked upon Christians not just as lunatics, but also as threats. Inevitably, the political and legal systems were turning against Christians. Later, Paul would be executed.

Paul encouraged the Christians of Rome. It was not just a series of platitudes. He urged them to resist the temptations to sin and to loss of faith. He urged them to hold true to Christ, letting nothing separate them from the Lord.

St. Matthew’s Gospel provides the third reading.

It is the familiar and beloved story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

In this well-known story, a large crowd is following Jesus. Within this crowd are sick people. Typically, the compassionate Jesus healed the sick.

Healing the sick meant much more here than curing a physical illness. The evil, fatal effects of Original Sin, and the long centuries of personal and societal sin, were being wiped away. Again, the ancient Jewish idea was that human sin brought every distress into the world.

Virtually no food was available to nourish this crowd. There were only five loaves of bread and a few fish.

Unwilling to dismiss the people, Jesus took the food, blessed it and gave it to the disciples to distribute to them. When everyone had eaten, the leftover food filled 12 baskets.

This miracle anticipates the Eucharist. Three elements are important in the story. One is the role of the disciples. Then God lavishly provided for the people despite the vast number in the crowd. Finally, God alone gives life.


A great, constant and underlying message of the Scriptures is that there is more to life than what humans see or hear around them.

Indeed, a basic lesson of the Church, largely overlooked today, is that human existence is eternal, either in heaven or hell. Everything in Christianity must be seen in this context.

Another lesson is that sin invariably damages and finally kills. This has always been the case. Sin never brings good. Someone, somewhere, will pay the price. The insight of the prophets was to see this reality.

In Jesus, God erases the effects of sin. He nourishes us when there is no other source of nourishment. But this must be understood in the context of what life is about, a context beyond mortals with their nearsightedness and self-centered perspective. It is spiritual. In Jesus, it can be forever. †

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